In the midst of an unraveling international order, the Russian system of personalized power, an obsolete construct that has lost the ability to modernize itself, somehow manages to fight on. In its struggle for survival it pursues a strategy of simultaneously being “with the West, inside the West, and against the West.” Having previously reincarnated itself by dumping the old state (the Soviet Union) and partnering with the liberal democracies and imitating their institutions, today the System has pivoted to containment of the West.
Is Russia ready for a confrontation with Western civilization? Hardly. But is the Russian leader a kamikaze, then? Putin doesn’t seem like the suicidal type. He has to know that real confrontation with the West would be an unbearable military burden for Russia’s shrinking budget. Even more important is the fact that an internationally isolated and marginalized Russia could not remain a great power; preserving great power status is Putin’s major (perhaps only) achievement in the eyes of Russians. And when you factor in the interests of Russia’s rentier class, whose wealth depends on Western integration, it is clear that a new Cold War is not in the cards for the Kremlin.
Rather, the Russian system has been attempting to survive in a globalized world and inside the West—but on its own terms. The Kremlin wants to have a seat at the table with the world’s key actors, but it also wants them to respect Russia’s right to interpret international norms as it sees fit, and to accept its need to sustain domestic legitimacy by means of an anti-Western agenda.
One might ask here, “What about the confrontation over Ukraine?” I would wager that the Kremlin had not planned for a long, drawn out conflict over Ukraine; it had hoped, rather, that the liberal democracies would stomach the Crimea annexation and what followed it. Putin’s relationship with the West over the past 14 years—and his personal experience with European leaders like Chirac, Berlusconi, Sarkozy, Blair, Schroeder, and finally Obama—apparently persuaded him that the West might whinge a bit but would ultimately accept his bargain. This was also the message the Russian political elite kept hearing from its Western counterparts, with their mantra of “Let’s accommodate Russia.” In the Russian political lexicon, accommodation is a synonym for weakness. The Western Epoch is over, the Kremlin declared in its foreign policy concept in 2013: The “possibilities of the historical west to dominate . . . are shrinking.” Putin’s decision to seize Crimea was based on his confidence that the Ukrainian adventure would be forgotten, as was the war with Georgia, which was followed by the U.S.-Russia reset. The Western sanctions in response to the Ukraine war must have been a shock for the Kremlin, and for Putin, a stab in the back. With the mantras of the accommodators echoing in their ears, Russia’s leaders blundered by expecting the West to accept this new reality. Thus the Western accommodators bear at least indirect responsibility for the Kremlin’s actions.
What about Moscow’s bullying over the past two years, including its brinksmanship with NATO? There is a tradition in Russian political culture of “coercive dating”—that is, ramping up pressure in order to force the object of desire into a dialogue. The Minsk-2 accord is an example of such forced dating.
Moscow’s Syrian adventure merely reinforces this pattern. Its goal is to break Russia’s isolation and allow the Kremlin to return to the global Mega League: Assad’s destiny, oil, and the balance of power in the Middle East are the means to achieve this goal. Time is a critical factor: A Europe consumed with its own problems and a lame duck U.S. President give the Kremlin a window for success. Kremlin recklessness must persuade the Western leaders to agree to a new bargain in order to stave off another round of Russian assertiveness. The Minsk-2 accord with Merkel and Hollande, which tacitly accepts Russia as both an aggressor and a moderator in the conflict, gave the Kremlin the impression that the West will sooner or later endorse to the world order it has been seeking. In this order, each player is allowed to interpret the rules of the game as he wishes, and there are no clear boundaries between peace and war, force and law, reality and imitation, or ally and enemy.
This would be a comfortable order for many in the West, too—for those who loathe normative dogmatism, or who have grown accustomed to the seductive (and profitable!) pragmatism of the past few decades. This ambiguous order is the best environment for Russia’s rentier class to maintain its links with “Londongrad” while also insulating Russian society from Western idealism; it would also allow the Russian regime to base its domestic legitimacy on anti-Westernism while keeping its seat at the table in the West’s institutions of international governance. This ambiguous world would allow the Russian system to contain the West without worrying about the threat of containment and subvert the West from within. What a great invention: low costs and high rewards! The Cold War, by contrast, was a foolish strategy. Much better to blackmail your foe into participating in your civilizational project.
True, there are two traps into which Russia could fall while following this strategy. The first is that it is difficult to dampen the fires of military-patriotic zeal; the requirements of maintaining Fortress Russia may prevent the Kremlin from achieving a Grand Bargain with the West. The second trap is, from the West’s point of view, a Catch-22: Any bargain that would allow the Kremlin to interpret the global rules of the game as it chooses would undermine the coherence and unity of Western principles. But rejecting the bargain could incite the Kremlin bull to wreck the Western China shop. The liberal democracies hardly are ready for a clash with a nuclear foe.
This is a deadlock, and there appear to be no exit solutions—at least as long as the West continues to defend a post-Cold War status quo that no longer exists.